2012/06/28 by sophwarnes
For quite a while now, gender theory and discussion has focused on women and feminism almost entirely, without much mention of the ways in which men are also harmed and devalued by what feminists term the ‘patriarchy’. On Tuesday Ally Fogg argued that acknowledging that men are hurt by this too wasn’t enough.
What’s more, little attention is paid to the ways in which men are unequal to women in a negative way. This is not to say that these ways are any worse to the ways in which women are treated negatively – but it seems that very little effort has gone into really looking at these.
In terms of being harmed by the patriarchy, men are generally expected to stay inside their Man Box – demonstrate hyper-masculinity by being physically strong, not crying or showing emotion, and so on. The Man Box says “don’t be like a woman”, “don’t act like a gay man”, “be dominant”.
The video in that link, a TED talk by Tony Porter, is a perfect example of how the patriarchy constrains men in a negative way. It is Tony’s belief – and one that I share – that the liberation of men is deeply rooted and tied into the liberation of women. That one cannot happen without the other, because the concepts of gender behavior and roles are created from the same system.
Sexual assault and domestic violence
Men are also victims of sexual assault and violence. It is true that perhaps in instances of rape, the perpetrators are also men, but this does not mean that it should be ignored in feminist discourse.
In some ways, when men are raped, this is much worse and more traumatic, as they have very little social support. This harrowing article in The Guardian explains that in Uganda, men are also raped by soldiers during wars. However, whereas women can (usually) depend on support from their communities – a place to go to, somebody to speak to – men who are victims of rape often cannot speak out. And they certainly have nowhere to go to seek help.
They are suppressed by society’s idea that to be a man is to be dominant and in control; that he cannot possibly be raped because he is aggressive and strong enough to fight back. His wife feels she cannot depend upon him anymore. His family feel shame.
If we keep ignoring that this happens, how can we even begin to change perceptions of men who are victims of rape? How can we begin to offer them support? Though the ‘real men get raped’ advertising campaign, which launched earlier this year, has attempted to challenge the widely-held perception that men cannot be victims, we still have a long way to go in recognising and providing support for them.
The same thing goes for men who are victims of domestic violence. We as a society are likely to ignore when men are the victims, because they are supposed to be strong – thus it is unlikely that they could possibly be a victim. Yet, in 2005, The Independent reported that ‘record numbers of men are being hit by their stressed out wives and girlfriends’.
Last year at Fem 11, UK Feminista’s conference, London Mayoral candidate Brian Paddick admitted he had been a victim of domestic violence in a same-sex partnership. It was shocking, but also emboldening to see someone with the courage to speak out. He has spoken out about it over the years, again and again, yet there is very little support in place for men who experience this.
Just a couple of months ago, as the coalition cuts started to hit national charities, feminists were outraged that refuge centres were being closed down – rightfully so – but the assumption was that all of those who use the refuge centres are women. In fact, Refuge, the UK’s top anti-domestic abuse charity, says they are “unable to support male victims of domestic violence”.
Though there is a Men’s Advice Line which aims to help male victims, it is only a ‘helpline’ designed to give advice and emotional support. There are no refuge centres for men in the same way that there are for women, though there is now an acknowledgement that this service may be necessary.
Male equality issues
Aside from societal issues with the perception of men-as-victims, there are other significant ways in which men are unequal to women, and could benefit from attachment to feminism or gender equality activism. Those that stand out to me are the issue of paternity leave, and custody of children.
Maternity leave in the UK was only granted in the 1980s. According to present legislation, women are entitled to 26 weeks of paid ‘Ordinary Maternity Leave’ and may be allowed a further 26 weeks ‘Additional Maternity Leave’. The fortnight’s leave following the birth is compulsory, for ‘health and safety reasons’. Paternity leave, on the other hand, was introduced in the UK by the 2003 employment bill – this allows for a minimum of a fortnight of leave, with statutory paternity pay.
There is a need for women to recover from what is a physically and emotionally stressful event, and to allow them time to bond with their child – but why is this different for men? If anything, men surely need more of an opportunity to bond with the child, seeing as they have not been carrying them around for nine months, nor given birth to them. They also need to be given the opportunity to leave work for a while to teach their child, play with them, and make a strong bond.
These parental leave laws send out a clear signal: women are primary caregivers, and they are largely responsible for bringing up any children. This is as bad for men as it is for women – especially at a time when stay-at-home fathers are on the rise. It also doesn’t account for situations where – for whatever reason – the father is a single parent.
It is a similar situation with child custody after divorce. Mothers are overwhelmingly likely to be given custody of any children they have, because they are usually the parent-in-residence. The onus is on women to live with the children, to perhaps be sole custodian of children, and to maintain the control over their children’s lives. In some cases, this is clearly a wise decision but it would seem that the justice system is skewed in favour of handing over children to the mother automatically.
Here, it is interesting to note that an independent review conducted last year – the Family Justice Review – recommended against a legal presumption of shared parenting. The foreword, by David Norgrove who is Chair of the Family Justice Review, reads: “We are aware that some will be disappointed by our decision to recommend against a legal presumption around shared parenting… The law cannot state a presumption of any kind without incurring unacceptable risk of damage to children”.
Paragraph 109 of the Executive Summary of the report states: “No legislation should be introduced that creates or risks creating the perception that there is a parental right to substantially shared or equal time for both parents”. This presumably works both ways, in an attempt to make child custody laws more in tune with what is good for the child rather than what is good for the parents.
But again, this independent review is being challenged at the moment, with ministers saying that they want to introduce a presumption of shared parenting, in what is the biggest family law reform in twenty years. Is the presumption of shared parenting – that the child could retain contact with both parents equally – a good idea? Perhaps it isn’t (I don’t know), but it would be good to see a more thorough, unprejudiced look at how child custody is managed by the courts.
When it comes to men’s rights, I think the patriarchy is wholly responsible for any inequality, whether this is against women, or in some cases, against men. Where we see inequality between genders, this is usually borne out of stereotypes or assumptions of that gender – i.e women being ‘caring’, men being ‘unemotional’.
This is nonsense – there is plenty of evidence to suggest that any traits are not wholly attributable to one gender. There is something to be gained from the discussion of men’s issues within the framework of patriarchy, and until we start looking at it that way – and connecting men with feminism – we are going to find these issues extremely difficult to fight.
Sophie is currently working as part of the online team for a national newspaper based in London. She mainly writes on her blog, Half The World Is Watching, and is particularly interested in feminist theory outside of the constraint and scope of traditional westernised feminism.